By Kathleen Reynolds
“There’s no reason for anyone to be hungry in Napa County,” says Drene Johnson, executive director of Community Action Napa Valley (CANV).
CANV runs an impressive array of feeding programs so that everyone in Napa County has enough food for themselves and their families. They also run two locations for CANV Kids, a California State licensed Department of Education program to prepare children for kindergarten.
“COVID necessitated a few changes to our programs, but we were able to adapt to continue to serve Napa County,” says Drene, who has been CANV executive director for 14½ years. “The biggest change is that our senior congregate meals program is on hold until the State of California gives us the approval to resume. These were the hot meals served at The Rianda House in St. Helena, the Community Center in American Canyon and the Napa Senior Center in Napa. Now the people who used to attend the congregate meals receive two flash frozen meals each day, three days a week at a drive-thru.”
Meals on Wheels and Wellness on Wheels, two other CANV options for seniors who are homebound, have altered their delivery methods. There are approximately 65 volunteer drivers on a rotating basis.
Originally, a volunteer driver would take the Meals on Wheels directly to the recipient’s home, wait until the person answered the door and stay to chat and visit with them. CANV’s wellness nurses would do similar in-person visit. Now, the volunteer drops the meals at the doorstep and waits in their vehicle until the person retrieves it. If no one comes to the door, the volunteer notifies the office, and someone will telephone the person to make sure they are fine. The Wellness Team also currently does their checks by phone.
“The biggest challenge with the new procedure is they’re missing human contact,” says Drene. “The seniors are facing isolation, loneliness and depression. For our volunteers, it’s hard to see someone they’ve gotten to know in distress. It’s difficult.”
Five services run under the CANV Food Bank: Senior Brown Bag/Box, the Emergency Food Pantry, Free Food Markets, Non-profit Agency Access and USDA. It has seen an uptick in the number of people needing food and the corresponding food products needed.
“Pre-COVID, we did two million pounds of food a year. Since COVID, we’ve done four million pounds a year. This past year, we’ve served 1700 households per week or the equivalent 81,600 households a year, which includes the drive-thru meals distributed during the pandemic.”
The Senior Brown Box (formerly Senior Brown Bag) helps seniors aged 60 or older to remain independent as long as possible.
“Seniors are able to pick up at several spots around the county. Volunteers deliver boxes to seniors with mental or physical disabilities. They receive approximately 10 to 14 food items twice a month,” states Drene. “Items may include fresh fruit, canned vegetables, oatmeal, beverages, pasta and staple items. Currently 335 Brown Bag meals are distributed per month.”
The Free Food Markets provide fresh fruits and vegetables along with other non-perishable food items to the Napa community on a regular basis. There is no income eligibility, and it occurs every Friday at various locations.
The Emergency Food Pantries are offered at seven pantry sites to low-income resident of Napa County every 30 days. Food amounts vary according to the household size. Locations of the Free Food Markets are listed on the website: canv.org. The markets serve more than 1,000 households a month.
The Food Bank also works with 35 local non-profit organizations who serve low-income people, allowing them access to a low-cost source of nutritious food. There are also non-perishable items, such as diapers. Once a week these agencies can shop for USDA Commodities and/or bulk food for only 19 cents per pound or at wholesale cost.
“We only charge non-profits our cost when we have to purchase the food,” Drene explains. “Like everything else, the cost of food has gone up. Whatever we get for free, we give away. All the bakery items are free. We do not touch the food, everything is wrapped or packaged.”
Volunteers were in shorter supply during the worst of the pandemic. At the start, all food received by the Food Bank had to be separated for 72 hours, then wiped down.
“The National Guard has been invaluable to us in this pressing time of need,” says Drene. “They helped with the drive-thru pantries and delivered meals all over Napa County, including American Canyon, Pope Valley, Angwin and Lake Berryessa. The National Guard also did traffic control. We would never have gotten all the food out without their help. We originally had 12 Guard members, now we have five. We’re hoping they stay with us a while longer.
”CANV is eco-conscious
“We recycle everything we can’t use,” Drene says. “Any food that we can’t distribute is given to pig farmers. We make sure there is no waste at all. There’s hardly any garbage.”
Anyone familiar with the USDA programs of old may be surprised by recent changes.
“USDA items are much more palatable now. No longer are there big blocks of tasteless cheese. Once a month, we give out the USDA produce boxes at eight locations. Low-income Napa County people are eligible and sign up for them. Residents may choose only one location.”
The number of CANV paid staff is tiny; the food programs work because of volunteers
“People are generous and assist us a lot. Local grocers help with food donations. Service clubs like the Boy Scouts, the Postal Workers, the CanDo Green Bag Programs, community food drives and supermarkets help, too. After the Fair, the pig farmers donate a pig to us, and others donate meat as well. Brown’s Valley Market processes and holds it for us.”
While various grants help with food purchases, no grants help with CANV’s operational expenses. “Gas prices have risen as we all know. Our drivers are all over the county delivering food. There’s vehicle maintenance, electricity and rent to pay. Financial donations are needed, and even gift cards are useful. Because of the pandemic, we’ve had no fundraisers. The CanDo Give!Guide helped.”
What are common misconceptions?
“That the people who access the food don’t need it. While there were some during the drive-thru phase who took advantage of it, we know the people who need it, really need it. We are Napa’s only Food Bank and Meals on Wheels, and we do a good job with what we have and a small staff.”
Food Bank Program Coordinator, Taima Broadhead, says that the biggest surprise to her in the four years she’s worked at the Food Bank is that most people receiving food are employed.
“In the majority of families, both parents work full-time, but live in poverty. It’s a stigma that people who use our services are non-working. Because of the high cost to live or commute here for jobs, they are the working poor.”